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For several years now I’ve heard the term “social business” bandied about; and, to be honest, I never really thought about what the phrase meant.

If I had been pressed, I would have said that “social businesses” are businesses built around social media (duh): such as Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare, etc., which are social media; businesses like Zynga or Hootsuite that have been built to run on or work with social platforms; and businesses like Groupon that rely on social behaviors such as sharing.

Pressed further, I might have also included companies that seem to have effectively integrated social media into their operational model (Dell, Best Buy, Zappos, etc.)

Amber Naslund characterized this as the “classic view” of social business when she and her partner, Matt Ridings, joined me for this week’s episode of Marketing Smarts. Amber and Matt recently launched a social business consultancy—SideraWorks—so I was looking to them to bring me up to speed. (If you’d like to hear the whole episode right now, just skip to the end!)

“Social media clouds the water a little bit when we talk about social business,” Matt told me. “Technically, you could be a social business and not really even ‘do’ social media.”

The key to being a social business depends less on technology, he said, and more on the “application of social concepts internally.”

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Think of “social” not as a set of technologies, then, but as a mindset centered around the organizational implications of those technologies. Social media facilitate collaboration, sharing, open communication, and connectivity, for example. They also foster active networks and communities. Finally, they push organizations toward greater degrees of transparency.

Accordingly, social businesses seek to become more collaborative, more networked, more agile, and more responsive. Indeed, few businesses, whether they aspire to be social or not, would question the benefit of doing so.

“We all know that if you can make your organization more effective, more efficient, more communicative,” Matt said, “it’s going to be a more effective organization in regards to generating revenue… more efficient at it, and really be a better place to be for the employees.”

Nevertheless, one must ask, If the rewards are so obvious, what prevents organizations from becoming more social?

“The human element gets in the way,” Amber states simply.

The move to social requires systemic change, as we all know, but sometimes “the people that power those systems are fraught with flaws”—which express themselves as a lack of innate curiosity, a low risk tolerance, or simply a culture of distrust.

When driving organizational change, you have two ways to address the “human element.” On the one hand, there’s the culture. By stressing new values and organizational habits, you can influence attitudes and, ideally, bring people around.

However, to do so, Matt insists, “you have to foster an environment in which those desired culture traits can thrive,” a process of “fostering” in which the actions and reactions of the leadership play a key role. 

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On the other hand, you can address the human element by bringing in new humans.

“Sometimes it’s a matter of one or two really smart, strategic hires with the right kind of attitude in very pivotal roles,” Amber said, “that can make a dramatic difference in the way people view their work.”

Lest we forget, “work” is the operative term here. The process of becoming more social—open, curious, collaborative, networked—is hard work, and no formula or prescription is going to dictate how your organization should undertake the journey.

“What works for one organization,” Matt says, “unfortunately isn’t going to work for the other where culture is concerned.”

And not only that; you are going to have to accept the reality of where your organization is when you start. Like it or not, the precise path of organizational change will be governed by the idiosyncrasies, and limitations, of the individual organization.

“Sometimes it’s not about what’s the right thing to do,” Matt emphasizes, “it’s about what’s going to be possible.”

“You don’t always get to pick and choose where it starts,” Amber adds, “You work with what you got.”

If you’d like to listen to my entire conversation with Amber and Matt, you can listen above or download the mp3. You can also subscribe to the podcast in iTunes. Finally, if you’d like to get another perspective on social business, check out our PRO Seminar, “How to Become a Social Business,” featuring IBM’s Sandy Carter.

This marketing podcast was created and published by MarketingProfs.

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